Rising prices: the high cost of living in 1916 Ireland
A recently published CSO survey paints a vivid picture of the cost of living in the country a century ago. Overall, today’s consumers have it much better than those of yesteryear
An electric tram in Dún Laoghaire circa 1906. Around the time of the Rising, the trams in Dublin operated on lines that ran 95.6km – 60km more than we have now. Photograph: Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images
Grocery shopping in 1916 was a simple affair. There were no giant multinational supermarkets flogging flatscreen tellies and quinoa salad to a public bombarded with buy-me messages penned by latter-day Don Drapers. The notion that strawberries, raspberries or grapes could be bought year round (or ever) would have been as unimaginable as new potatoes in the winter.
Instead there were street markets, small shops and shopping lists made up of mutton, lard, “cheapest tea” and “second- grade margarine”.
And exhaustive CSO project published earlier this month collates statistics to paint a picture of the Ireland of 1916. Much of the data is based on the 1911 census and other material that is as closely applicable to 1916 as possible.
“Things were very poor back then, so poverty jumps out at you [and] the lack of variety,” says Helen Cahill, the CSO project’s lead statistician “We have average prices of groceries that people bought. There was very little variety in food.”
Ireland was predominantly an agricultural country and a place where a lot of milk was produced, but condensed milk was also commonly bought, largely because getting fresh milk from the country to the city was hard, and it was harder still to keep it fresh in the days before refrigeration.
Neither fish nor fowl were listed on the Consumer Price Index, suggesting that these modern-day staples were something of a treat back then.
According to the CSO figures, a pound of beef cost the equivalent of €3.67 in today’s money. Mutton, pork chops, pork sausages and bacon all cost €4.90 a pound. Creamery butter was €7.35. Cheese cost €4.90 a pound and lard €3.67. A quart of milk was €1.22, a dozen eggs were €4.90 and a 2lb loaf of white bread was €1.22. A stone of “old” potatoes cost €2.45 and the “best” tea was €15.92, whereas the cheapest tea was €9.79 a pound. White sugar cost €1.22 a pound, and the same amount of jam was €3.67.
Comparing prices then and now tells us how good we have it.
Just look at the price of eggs. In 21st century Ireland, there is a clear distinction between the cost of free-range, battery and organic eggs. A dozen of the cheapest costs €1.99 in your local Tesco, whereas the free-range options are €3.75. If you want your eggs organic, the price climbs to €4. It is safe to assume that the eggs being sold in 1916 were pretty organic and free-range, but they were expensive compared even with the organic versions of today, and at €4.90 cost almost twice the price of the cheapest eggs available in 2016.
At €15.92 for the best tea, the drink most commonly associated with the Ireland of the Rising was not cheap. A pound of Barry’s Gold Blend loose-leaf tea now costs just €6.48, and 1lb of the cheapest own-brand option (sold in bags) can be bought for as little as €1.75 or more than four times cheaper than the cheapest tea back then.
And then there was bread and butter. A pound of creamery butter cost €7.35; farm-bought butter was slightly cheaper. A pound of own-brand butter today costs €2.15; if you want to go with the market-leading brand, Kerrygold, you will pay €2.95 – less than half the price it cost back then. A 2lb loaf of bread was €1.22; the same amount of white (sliced) bread now will cost you as little as 99 cent.
Not only were prices higher, wages were much lower. A person in a good civil- service job would have been doing well to earn the 2016 equivalent of €100 a week.
At the most superficial level, the clothes being bought by Irish people ahead of Easter 1916 seem quite cheap, even if Patrick Pearse and Constance Markievicz didn’t have Penneys, H&M or Zara to pop into in the run-up to the Rising.
CSO figures put a woman’s heavy coat at €188.57. A blouse was €32.63, a skirt would have cost €48.97 and a pair of boots €68.57. A man’s ready-made overcoat was €209.39, whereas a tailor-made one would have set him back €328.16. An off-the-peg suit was €192 and a tailor-made one would have been €360. Last week we rang Louis Copeland looking for a quote. He told us that a tailor-made suit would cost anywhere between €750 and €1,000, and we would not have much change out of €500 if we wanted to buy a suit off the rack.
So were clothes cheap back then? Quite the opposite. The prices seem low but the wages were even lower. It would have taken a national- school teacher in 1916 one week to earn enough to cover the cost of a woman’s heavy coat; the annual salary was a little shy of €10,000. Today, a national-school teacher who has been working for 15 years will earn about €42,500: enough to buy four heavy coats each week for a 1916 woman.
One of the most interesting things contained within the CSO figures is the percentage of income spent on a range of items. There is no information for 1916, but information from 1922 is enough to give us an idea of where the money was going back then.
In summer 1922, the Ministry of Economic Affairs sent 5,000 household budget forms to national-school teachers in every school in the country, who then distributed the forms to wage-earning households. Only 308 completed budgets, from 112 towns, were returned.
Householders were asked to detail the quantities and costs of all food consumed during the previous seven days, in addition to expenditure on fuel and light, household goods and cigarettes. They were also asked to give the cost of all clothing purchased over the previous year, and the cost of materials bought to make clothes.
Fifty per cent of the average household spend was on food and nonalcoholic drinks in 1922. Today that figure would be less than 12 per cent. Back then a further 17.5 per cent was spent on clothes, compared with about 6 per cent now. In total, 87 per cent of the average household spend in 1922 was on food, clothing, rent, fuel and light. Now we spend just over a quarter of our income on these categories.
Today’s Consumer Price Index has weights for items that do not appear in 1922. Transport, restaurants and hotels, recreation and culture, health and communications did not feature back then.
An odd feature of the 1922 numbers is that alcohol is excluded entirely. The demon drink was also left out of the 1914 Cost of Living index for Great Britain and Ireland, which was designed to measure the cost of living for working-class households. Today, more than 2 per cent of our total spend is on alcohol.
There has also been a dramatic shift in the nature of housing. In 1911 just under 10 per cent of housing units had 10 or more rooms, with the percentage rising to more than 21 per cent in Dublin. Fewer than 3 per cent of Irish homes today can boast such space, and in Dublin only 1.6 per cent of homes have more than 10 rooms.
Although some people lived in big houses, many more lived in very small homes. In 2011, 36 per cent of dwellings in Dublin comprised just one room. Close to a quarter of those living in Dublin city in 1911 lived in a tenement.
Just under half of those who were employed in Ireland around the time of the Rising worked in agriculture, compared with less than 5 per cent now. Just over a quarter worked in manufacturing, compared with just under 9 per cent now. One in 10 workers were domestic servants. Today less than 0.3 per cent of those at work are classified as such.
Just 8.8 per cent of the working population were classified as professionals then, compared with more than 40 per cent now. In 1911 the “commercial group of occupations”, which included insurance, banking, transport and communications, and retail and wholesale trade comprised 5.6 per cent of the workforce.
In 2011, there were two groups that would cover broadly similar occupations – sales and commerce; and communication, warehouse and transport workers. Together this group made up for 21.5 per cent of the workforce.
The total number of cars in Ireland in 1915 was 9,850. Now there are about two million. A third of all the cars on Irish roads then were in Dublin. Longford had the lowest number of cars: 68.
Cork had 35 electric trams in 1901, whereas Dublin had 330 by 1911. The trams in Dublin operated on lines that ran 95.6km: 60km more than we have now. The city did not get its first bus route – the No 43 to Killester – until July 1925.
In 1916, there were more than 5,632km of railways on the island, transporting passengers and goods. Most of rural Ireland was within 10-12 miles of a local railway station. There were 964 train stations on the island in 1916. By 2014, there were 144 stations open in the Republic and just 2,384km of railways tracks.
The macro picture
In 1911 the government spent £11.5 million on the island of Ireland and raised £10.7 million in revenue, giving a deficit of about £0.8 million – or the price of a smallish house in a leafy Dublin suburb today.
By 1916 the overall fiscal situation in Ireland was great – for the British if not the Irish. The deficit of £0.8 million in 1911 (before the start of the first World War) had turned to a surplus of £5.3 million in 1915 (one year after the start of the war).
By 1916 nearly £24 million was raised in Ireland by the British government, but just over half of this, £12.6 million, was spent here, giving a surplus of more than £11 million towards the war effort in Britain.
Taxes on imported goods such as tea, sugar and tobacco, and increased duties on alcoholic products, as well as a lowering of the exemption limit for income tax, contributed to the large increase in government revenue between 1913 and 1916.
Total revenue collected by the British Government in 1916 was £564.7 million. Revenue raised in Ireland accounted for about 4 per cent of this.
A PRETTY PENNY: THE IRISH TIMES ON THIS DAY IN 1916
It would be remiss of us to talk about products, pricing and the life lived by Irish consumers in 1916 without looking inwards, at least briefly.
On this day in 1916, The Irish Times cost a penny. Yep, one bright, shiny penny. That might seem ridiculously cheap compared with today’s prices, but to put the penny in perspective, a pint of Guinness would have cost you six times that price.
And the newspaper back then was nowhere near as snazzy as it is today. As was common at the time, our front page was given over entirely to classified advertising. Money-lending was big business.
The English and Scottish Law Life Company on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) was promising loans to anyone with a life-assurance policy. On Marlborough Street, the First Class Money Office was looking for people to pawn their silverware, promising the best rates. D Cowan on Drury Street was offering loans of up to £500 to farmers, shopkeepers, doctors, ladies, gentlemen and all respectable applicants on a simple promissory note ad. Private Finance would lend as much as £5,000 “on note of hand alone to Ladies and Gentlemen without any security or interview”.
Rescotts was promising to make our readers’ furs as good as new, and several car dealers were advertising cars for a pretty hefty £300.
You could have travelled to Liverpool on the Tedcastle Line for just 3 and sixpence – although that would have been steerage, and if you wanted a cabin it would have cost you eight shillings.
The Spa Hotel in Lucan was selling itself as the “best inland health resort in Ireland”. Its air, we were told, was “famed for its purity and health-restoring properties”. Nothing much has changed there, then.
Then there was the lost-and-found section, although to be honest it was more of a lost section. Someone had mislaid a set of keys on the balcony of the Kingstown Railway Station and they really, really wanted them back. The loser was willing to offer a five-shilling reward for their safe return. Also lost were two fox-fur muffs – one on a tram in Donnybrook and another near Merrion Square – a gold-rimmed pince-nez had been misplaced in Dublin and an Aberdeen terrier called Howard had also gone missing from the same area.